Today, a dry-eyed objective designer finally
teaches America to weep. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Maya Lin was born in Athens,
Ohio, the year Kennedy was elected President. She
was the Chinese-American daughter of two college
professors. Our long slide into the Vietnam War had
barely begun. Maya Lin was too young to've been
involved in the domestic conflict that tore America
apart as the war ran its course. By 1980, with the
war long since lost, she was studying architecture
at Yale. Her generation had given scant thought to
the 58,000 Americans who'd died in Vietnam.
That year, Congress finally agreed to a national
memorial that would honor, not victory, but the
dead. A blue chip committee of artists and
architects sat down to review 1400 proposed
designs. They weren't allowed to see the entrants'
Maya Lin worked six weeks on an entry. It went into
the pot along with the work of major architectural
firms. She was now 21 -- a very talented student
with no professional credentials. And it was she
who won the competition.
Her design was stark and haunting: a long black
broken triangle of a wall with 58,000 names on it.
No statues, no flags, no revisionist history.
Nothing could've been more wrong, or right.
Vietnam vet Jan Scruggs had initiated the project
in 1979 after he saw the movie Deer
Hunter. He tells how politicians, veterans
of other wars, and H. Ross Perot (who'd sponsored
the design competition) all hated Lin's design.
Some opponents said the wall should be white, not
black. Black general George Price finally had to
declare: "Black is not the color of shame."
Soldiers who'd been there understood. Lin's very
distance from the flailing passions of the war had
given her means for seeing that names had to be the
memorial's focus. She gave the names of those
soldiers back to a country that'd tried to forget
Lin was brushed aside in the bureaucratic combat
that followed, but she'd made the one argument that
couldn't be ignored -- the design itself. Fine
monuments do that. Nineteenth-century Parisians
cursed the Eiffel Tower as it rose into the sky.
But Eiffel's eerie design eventually made its
As the 1982 dedication of the Memorial neared, the
same thing happened. When people see the actual
wall they do strange things. They bring ceremony to
it. Some stand and salute. Some leave photos. Some
embrace before it. But one thing they all do is
touch the names. Everyone touches the names.
In 1982 our hurt over Vietnam was all bottled in,
eating up veteran and civilian alike, liberal and
conservative. It took the detachment of a brilliant
young designer to invent means by which we could
finally face our pain -- and reconcile ourselves to
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Scruggs, J.C., and Swerdlow, J.L., To Heal a
Nation: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, New
York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985.
Branch, M.A., Maya Lin After the Wall.
P/A, August 1994, pp. 60-65.
Zinsser, W., I Realized Her Tears Were Becoming
Part of the Memorial. Smithsonian,
Vol. 22, No. 6, Sept. 1991, pp. 32-43.
Beardsley, J., Like a Mighty Stream,
Landscape Architecture, Design, Jan.
1990, pp. 78-79.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture librarian, for suggesting Maya Lin as
a subject and providing all the source material.
See also Episode 372 for a
look at two more Vietnam Memorials.
Maya Lin, who is 35 at this writing, works as an
architect/sculptor, but she does so very privately
-- no formal office, no phone number. Mark Branch
quotes her as saying, simply, "My work is public,
I'm not." Her lovely works include a powerful
memorial to slain black and white civil rights
workers in Montgomery, Alabama -- finished in
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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